Tea manners, good manners?

IMG_7191 retocadaOne of the first rules we learn when we are children regarding good table manners are: do not play with the food and do not make any sounds when you eat. But when it comes to tea tasting these rules are basically the opposite. In order to evaluate a tea you have to “play” with it, meaning you have to see it, smell it and taste it. The way tea is tasted professionally is by slurping. The slurp allows the tea to mix with the oxygen to release its maximum flavour. After the slurping also comes the spitting. Master Tea Tasters can taste hundreds of teas in a row and they usually don’t swallow all the teas they taste, they spit them.

Whether you are a professional tea taster or a tea lover, I believe it is a great exercise to evaluate your tea. You are looking for its characteristics, quality, aromas, colour, bright, taste and aftertaste, among other things. It is called sensory evaluation and Master Tea Tasters are trained to systematically and meticulously identify every characteristic of one particular tea each time, hundreds of cups of tea at a time.

But don’t worry if you are not an expert. You can start at home with the teas you have, trying to identify aromas, textures and flavours, also reading about them. You can even ask somebody else to taste them with you and compare your notes.

Finally, forget about “good manners”, grab your spoon and start practicing your slurping skills, -you will notice how much practice it actually takes to do it without choking or dribbling- and open your senses to the variety of flavours and possibilities that a specific tea can provide you. If you love tea and want to start expanding your knowledge and refining your senses, this is a great exercise to start with!

The romantic side of tea or the microsociology of tea

Harney and Sons Teascopia

Harney and Sons NYC

I spend time reading and looking for information about tea: trends, latest discoveries, news, tasting and visiting tea places because it is essential for my occupation and most of all, because it interests me. But sometimes or may I say most of the times, I end up – besides accumulating an enormous amount of information – wandering away, thinking about things that may not be relevant within the context of the tea industry, thinking about tea in everyday life or as I would like to call it “the romantic side of tea.” The other day a friend told me: “I am not having a good relationship with tea lately. We aren’t good friends anymore…” And why is that? I said. “I don’t know, I don’t know, it just happened.” Few days later he came home and I made tea. I said: “Try this, I think it could restore your relationship with tea.” He had a sip and immediately said: “What is it? With this of course you regain your faith in tea!” I loved it and I thought to myself, people do establish relationships with tea and that is fantastic. Last week, I was making copies of my Tea Sommelier CV in a copy place. Few days later I went back and the guy from the store asked me: “I am drinking rooibos these days because my homeopath banned me from caffeine. Is rooibos good for me?” So we started a conversation and I even promised to give him some lemongrass and rose infusion to taste. And I also thought, how nice it is to have a conversation about tea in Barcelona with the guy from the copy store who also happens to be a tap dancer.

Petersham Nurseries Teascopia

Petersham Nurseries London

It is in these ordinary and random stories, conversations and the daily act of drinking tea where I find motivation and inspiration for myself and for my blog. It also crossed my mind that if you put all these stories and ideas together they might turn into a some sort of “microsociology of tea.” It is in the nature of everyday human social interactions where microsociology stands and where my approach to tea also belongs to: the interpretative analysis and subjective observation. So I am not only interested in the technical aspects of tea but also in the way people relate to it: the private and social rituals of making tea, tea as a cultural institution, a religious practice, a fancy trend, a popular drink, all at the same time. In how “tea culture” varies across countries and people.

I also love to hear people’s stories on how they started drinking tea and meaningful anecdotes they remember. I love when people offer me tea. I love to know about their preferences and choices and to think about the endless possibilities of taste. I love the reactions of people when they experience different flavours and smell different aromas and discover something new. In a nutshell, I am drawn by “our ability to see greatness in small things” as Muriel Barbery wisely said and how these little things become meaningful to us, whether that is in the world of tea or in life.

Tea and cake # 4

While in Antwerp I was doing some grocery shopping at the supermarket when I spotted this lovely box of gluten free Speculoos biscuits on the shelf. I would always see my husband craving for the regular ones so it was finally my opportunity to try them! If you don’t know what Speculoos is, these are shortbread biscuits with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, cardamom, among other spices, similar to a Christmas shortbread.

The box had this message on the side: “The little pleasures in life are a touch of oooom mixed with a pinch of mmmmm and a dash of yuhm, and many other special ingredients only you know about”. Well, these biscuits are mmmm, yuhmmm, oommm indeed and I think that would be the best description for it; my husband was right. Needless to say this brand is called Little Pleasures.


So in this edition of Tea and Cake (that I should have called Tea and Biscuits instead), I married a black, malty, full bodied Assam with the Speculoos biscuits and the combination was absolutely delicious! It was like tasting a Masala Chai and if you think about it, it actually is. The spices in both the tea and the biscuits are mostly the same. But don’t worry, if you don’t have Speculoos, find a good Assam or any robust black tea and accompany it with some ginger or spiced cookies, and you will see the result!

This time I also added soy milk to my Assam (a lighter version of a builders tea) just to add creaminess to it and have a bit of contrast with the crunchiness of the biscuits.

I had a sip of my tea, then I had a cookie, then another sip and so on until the cup and the box were both empty.

Tea at home away from home

image copyOne of the things I enjoy the most about traveling is the experience of discovering new things. Sometimes we go back to places that we already know and some others, we try new ones. Yet each experience is always different. This was my second visit to Belgium and this time we spent one week in Ghent and another one in Antwerp. In Ghent we stayed at a friend’s house while they were in Norway. They have a beautiful flat with a lovely garden and a sweet cat called Lucy who was the perfect company while finding inspiration and writing for my blog. In Antwerp we stayed at the same flat we rented last year. It had slightly changed since our last time there, it had new pictures hanging on the walls, different crockery and other decoration items but it was all very nice as usual.

One morning I was making tea and this thought came to my mind: “tea at home away from home” and it was a nice and curious feeling. Any place where you spend time at and you feel at ease, where you can unwind, relax and wake up every morning and make tea (or coffee), rapidly becomes your “home”. We start building routines, we choose our favourite spots of the house, we take care of it, we spend time there and we adapt to it without even noticing. I didn’t need much to feel just right and I am more and more convinced that it is because we are these self-contained moving houses that make a “home” wherever we go.

So I had many cups of tea those days, enjoying that feeling of being at home away from home, reinventing myself, daydreaming, experiencing my usual and different cup of tea in every way. They came in a different language, with the smell of greenery, lots of rain, the sound of the tram, krieks, good friends and unforgettable times.

IMG_1203.JPGSomething as easy as a cup of tea every morning to feel at home? I wish life was that simple but I think this is more about making room in our lives to enjoy simple pleasures no matter where we are, to feel comfortable with ourselves and our surroundings, wether it is at home or away from home.

I want to dedicate this post to our amazing and loving friends: Johan and Carmen (and family), Medhi and Ruth (and family), Femke and Joram (and Lucy) for having us at their homey flat, Robin and Marlies, Mark and Guy (and those we couldn’t see this time) for making this trip so special! Belgium feels like home everytime we go because of you! Big hugs!


The Garland Geisha

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI found this cup at a flea market. The original price was €5 and I ended up paying just €1. Don’t ask me how it happened, I am not good at haggling but it is “expected” at flea markets to negotiate a fair price for something you like. The truth was that I only had €3 in cash with me and I thought, I won’t be able to find anything for this price but I will have a look anyway. So I saw this dusty cup, amongst many other things, and I wasn’t sure wether I liked it or not, the porcelain seemed too thin and fragile and I wasn’t particularly attracted to the design. It even crossed my mind that it could have belonged to a children’s tea set but I took it anyway and I am happy that I did. On my way home I grabbed the cup again to look for details and suddenly I put it against the light and there it was, a vivid image of a geisha at the bottom of the cup! It was so unexpected that it felt a bit spooky at first, but once you see the image, it is so delicate that it becomes a beautiful surprise.

This artform is called Lithophane: “Lithophanes are three-dimensional translucent porcelain plaques which when backlit reveal detailed magical images” http://www.lithophanemuseum.org/lithophanes.html

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetMany historians argue that the inspiration for the idea came originally from China nearly a thousand years before in the Tang Dynasty but they were produced in Germany, France, Prussia and England around 1820’s.

“A lithophane presents a three-dimensional image -completely different from two-dimensional engravings and daguerreotypes that are “flat”. The images change characteristics depending on the light source behind them. Window lithophane panel scenes change throughout the day depending upon the amount of sunlight. The varying lightsource is what makes lithophanes more interesting to the viewer than two-dimensional pictures” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithophane

On another blog I found that this particular lithophane is from Japan and the featured geisha is called “Garland Geisha’ because of the wreath of flowers she has on her hair. I think it is amazing how many details you can get from this image… http://www.lithophane.org.uk/japanese/japanese.html

Besides the beauty of the cup I also love the way something as simple as a cup leads to the discovery of new things, how it opens a new world of knowledge and interests and how your impressions can change when you look at things in a different way…

To end up the afternoon I made a delicate Chinese Lung Ching, poured it into my new cup and waited to until the Geisha smiled at me again!